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Denny Hamlin salvages day for Joe Gibbs Racing with third-place finish

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400

RICHMOND, VA - APRIL 30: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, leads Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Detroit Genuine Parts Ford, during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 30, 2017 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

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First, Matt Kenseth led the opening 164 laps with ease. But his day was ruined by a cut tire and the No. 20 Toyota finished 23rd.

Kyle Busch later challenged for the lead. But the four-time Richmond winner was left simply stating “balls and strikes” after a commitment line violation relegated him to 16th.

Rookie Daniel Suarez was never a factor, finishing 12th.

That left Joe Gibbs Racing’s best chances for winning its first race this season to Virginia native Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin led three times for 59 laps in the Toyota Owners 400, but the last time the No. 11 Toyota led Sunday was 38 laps from the race’s conclusion.

Hamlin wound up third after a series of late-race restarts, earning his first top five of the year.

“We optimized our day,” Hamlin said. “It’s the best we could do. We finished right where we should have.”

Though Kenseth earned the pole and led the most laps and Hamlin earned his best result through nine races, Hamlin cautioned this doesn’t mean JGR has pulled out of its early season “short falls.”

“I think that some of the issues that you might have with speed is masked just a little bit on a short track, so by no means does this indicate that we’ve fixed anything,” Hamlin said. “When I’m running out front, my balance is very, very good, where I need it to be, and we just don’t have a car that was quite fast enough. Aerodynamics matter, skew matters, things like that, and we’re just a little behind. So we’ve got to just take solace in some small wins and goals, and today was a good finish.”

On Friday, Hamlin had warned that JGR’s woes wouldn’t be fixed “overnight” or in “a month.” That remained the case 48 hours later, even though Kenseth led his first laps of the season and won a stage.

The team was unable to defend its three-race win streak at the .75-mile track. Hamlin delivered the last win there in September 2016 race. That was also the last win by an active JGR driver (Carl Edwards, who is not racing this year, won at Texas in November with the team).

“We know where we need to get better,” Hamlin said. “That’s the tough part. At least if you know why, then you can go to work on those areas.”

Through nine races, JGR’s four drivers have combined for five top-five finishes.

“We haven’t gotten better,” Hamlin said. “We’re really right where we were. I mean, if we go to a mile-and-a-half (track) next week, we’re just as far off as what we were a week ago.

“You’ve still got to have raw speed. You cannot just have a better setup than those guys and go out and beat them. You have to have a faster car, and we just ‑‑ you know, I’m optimistic. I hate to be pessimistic about today, but we’ve got to be real about it and realize, hey, it’s just a short track. We still have a lot of work to do to catch up.”

If short tracks like Richmond help even out the competition, the series heads to the epitome of even competition in Talladega Superspeedway.

Hamlin has two points wins in restrictor-plate races since 2014, including last years’ Daytona 500. He placed third in the fall race at the 2.66-mile speedway.

“Definitely looking forward to it,” Hamlin said. “Our Superspeedway program has been great at JGR. ... It’s honestly probably the best chance I have at winning until a few months from now. Everything is pretty level. I’m optimistic we’re going to have a car that can win, and I’ll do the best I can to fight for every position.”

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